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URMC / Education / Graduate Education / URBest Blog / December 2016 / NIH Shark Tank: Swimming with Philanthropists

NIH Shark Tank: Swimming with Philanthropists

For the 2016 Annual NIH BEST meeting with all 17 awardee institutes converging in Bethesda, we were issued a challenge.

“You have been called by the leaders of NIH, NSF and BWF. They are currently in a meeting and want you to join them on a teleconference immediately and give a 5 minute or less pitch about your most creative strategy for sustainability.  What will you say?”

The rules were simple. Share our most creative strategy for sustaining our institution’s BEST program on one slide; each program could submit only one answer before the meeting. Six programs would be randomly preselected to present, but no one would know who was presenting until they were called so all programs would need to prepare. Detailed readers will remember this point; I myself completely let that slip.

The URBEST Program needed to submit one slide, describing our creative strategy for sustainability. Naturally, I didn’t want all that responsibility so I checked in with our URBEST leaders: Steve Dewhurst, Sarah Peyre, Paul Dunman, Scott Steele, Katrina Korfmacher, Joan Adamo, and Helene McMurray. We came up with three options (1) integrate the program into other support systems (e.g. training grants and fellowships), (2) philanthropy and (3) playing it forward: training one person really trains multiple people. All seemed reasonable and important ways to perpetuate and sustain the URBEST program. The question was what to share with NIH and how to share it?

My choice was made for me when I received an email from Advancement colleagues with an attachment: a beautiful 20-page proposal about the URBEST Program they had put together for a potential philanthropist. Over the course of two months, Advancement had used the annual URBEST progress reports that went to NIH, my notes from current and past URBEST activities and internships, quotes from students and postdocs pulled from URBEST evaluation surveys, and stunning digital photos from the 2016 URBEST Retreat and Career Workshop to create the proposal. If successful, this would be the first example of any BEST program receiving support through philanthropy.

Looking the proposal over, I felt very proud yet fortunate to see how the URBEST program was building momentum and serving our Biomedical and Health Sciences Ph.D. graduate students and postdocs. It seemed clear to me that my answer to the NIH’s question of creative sustainability was looking me in the face: Philanthropy. I waited a few days to be sure this was my “final answer” and then created the requested one slide in less than five minutes, being certain to de-identify our philanthropist, who wanted to make sure that URBEST was a strong program before offering support (see URBEST One Slide).  I sent the slide to NIH, excited to see how it would compete with the rest of the BEST programs’ slides. Imagine the excitement I felt when I received a message ten minutes later (not at all related to NIH) from an Advancement colleague saying our philanthropist had agreed to support the URBEST program. I would have to keep quiet as paperwork progressed. A week later, I headed to Bethesda without hearing word if our slide had been selected for presentation.

Winning Slide

URBEST One Slide Although I was able to share only one slide with NIH, many hours were expended by Advancement colleagues who developed an in-depth understanding of URBEST and our future goals, worked with the donor, and completed the proposal that was shared with our first philanthropist. This opportunity would also have never been possible without the existing connection between our philanthropist and Steve Dewhurst, URBEST Co-PI and Vice Dean for Research at SMD.  I would also like to thank all the URBEST PhD students and postdocs that provided me with unsolicited feedback and stories about how much value the URBEST Program has provided them. Your comments and encouragement are priceless.

The creative strategy session opened with the theme song of Shark Tank. NIH’s Lori Conlan informed us that six programs had been selected and we would have five minutes to present our idea and then we would be questioned – Shark Tank style – by the NIH BEST External Science Panel (ESP): Drs. Kenneth Maynard, Takeda Pharmaceuticals; Holly Falk-Krzesinski, Elsevier; Diane Klotz, Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute; and Diane Lipscombe, Brown University. I felt disappointed; the URBEST slide and strategy hadn’t been selected. The first two BEST programs pitched their sustainability slides, and I watched as they described their creative strategies and ended by answering the External Scientific Panelists’ (i.e. sharks’) questions, sad that I wouldn’t get a chance.

Suddenly, the URBEST slide lit up on power point display, and Lori called out “University of Rochester,” asking who would present. That was me! I didn’t even think about the complications of presenting a five-minute pitch that I hadn’t practiced. I jumped up and started telling the story about how URBEST was working with The Alumni and Advancement Center and how our trainees and the center needed URBEST Career Stories and connections with successful individuals with PhDs. In the same way, URBEST needed the Alumni and Advancement Center’s experience and connections to learn how to better reach out to those successful individuals. In broad-brush stokes, I told the audience about the proposal design and how little by little the URBEST program was coming to life with input from faculty, trainees, executive directors of all kinds and most importantly alumni. People were starting to believe in the possibilities the program made seem real. My last pitch? Our first philanthropist had said yes (see The Dr. Theresa Chen URBEST Internship Endowment). She would provide an endowment to URBEST, a program that she had evaluated and decided was a program that was going to help UR students and postdocs and that she wanted to help sustain.

Theresa Chen Portrait

The Dr. Theresa Chen URBEST Internship Endowment  Although I could not share Dr. Theresa Chen’s name at the October 2016 Annual BEST meeting, I am delighted to tell you a little bit about the UR alum and philanthropist who has provided the first endowment to any BEST program. Dr. Chen completed her PhD (’74) in pharmacology from the School of Medicine and Dentistry. She has provided the generous gift to endow a fund for the purpose of supporting trainees for internship and externship travel and living expenses.

It is a great honor to have Theresa Chen and her family’s name associated with the URBEST program to help mentor and support trainees in exploring science career options, gaining professional skills, and pursuing internship opportunities. Her sustained commitment to this program and, specifically, to University of Rochester PhD graduate students and postdoc will be essential in helping them to navigate more confidently during their training process, and to identify and participate in multiple avenues of career development.

As URBEST continues to evolve, I look forward to working with Dr. Chen to evaluate the URBEST program and identify emerging career paths and essential skills needed for early-stage scientists to be successful.

"In a world with career opportunities for scientists expanding beyond traditional academic positions, it is crucial for them to broaden their career choices and to obtain the necessary skills to do so.  I strongly support the URBEST Program and its goal to provide such training to scientists early, while still trainees, to help them secure and flourish in future careers.” – Theresa Chen

The questioning by the External Science Panel was a blur because I was so nervous. I do, however, remember the last question from Takeda’s Kenneth Maynard: How would you convince me that your BEST Program is serving your PhD graduate student and postdoc population. I smiled at the questioner and said I wouldn’t have to convince you that the URBEST Program is serving our trainees. I’d invite our 17 URBEST interns and our URBEST certificate awardees to come in to speak with you and without a doubt, they would be the ones to convince you that the program was changing their lives. He and the other panelists seemed to like that answer.

Tracey Baas | 1/10/2017

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